Company Culture and Working Dynamic at Roche Belgium

Transforming a company begins and ends with its culture 

Brigitte Nolet is General Manager for Roche Belgium and Luxembourg since December 2018. She has held a number of global and affiliate leadership roles within the pharmaceutical company since joining 14 years ago. Just over a year ago, the BeLux affiliate started a transformation journey to serve Roche’s bold pharma vision to “provide more patient benefit at less cost to society”.

Belgium is the fourth country in which I have worked and lived with my family. As a first-time General Manager, I always try to reference what I learned in a global context to see what that means at the country level.

“Dynamic” is the perfect word to define our work in Belgium and Luxembourg as so much happens and is interconnected when working in smaller countries. We started our local transformation one year ago with the aim to deliver better outcomes for more patients faster.

We know that our healthcare system is changing – accelerated by COVID-19. Now is the time to be ambitious about healthcare in Belgium and in Luxembourg. It only makes sense that we are equally ambitious with ourselves in terms of how we adapt our culture and our ways of working to meet the future needs of our healthcare systems.

We have balanced the implementation of our transformation in a phased manner. We started with cultural changes and new ways of working, then evolved our operating model, and we will now move to embedding and measuring our progress.

Cultural shift
The legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said it well, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. You can have the best possible transformation strategy; but if you do not have the right culture in place, it will not make any difference.

The culture journey is the most complicated to undertake. That is why we asked employees to design our approach to culture for the organisation. Their recommendations required changing our working principles, enhancing our leadership skills, addressing our mindset and role modeling the behaviors we seek in order to find the most agile way of working. It is a long-term effort, based on the principle of continuous learning, and requires everyone’s commitment to achieve.

A shift of mindset starts with individual empowerment. That means we want to ensure that everyone in the affiliate has the capabilities and can take accountability for his/her work without having to work within a traditional hierarchy.

We have to let go of perfectionism and get comfortable in saying no to activities that don’t tie to our purpose – stopping activities and eliminating work, boldly leading when needed, and otherwise trusting colleagues to get the job done.

We now know that those who are the closest to the work are the best able to make decisions. This is totally changing the way we think at work and the assumptions we make, as simply letting go is not natural to everyone.

People & culture
What we quickly learned is that you cannot push an “empowerment” button and act in an empowered way from one day to another. Living in Belgium, we can make the correlation with traffic: is it more efficient to have red lights or roundabouts to manage traffic? The first one is about plan and control while the latter is about trust and autonomy. Fewer accidents occur in the second configuration yet people tend to feel more confident with red lights.

We choose trust and autonomy at Roche. This is why we renamed our human resources department “People & Culture”. More than a change of name, it means employees are more than their CVs or human assets; they need to feel confident and trusted to work autonomously.

We focus on supporting professional development and helping employees in getting the right skills for this agile approach, while maintaining technical expertise. When we hire new talents, the interview is not a strict assessment of capabilities but, even more importantly, we assess whether the person will fit into the new company culture.

We also assign a “buddy” to our new colleagues when they onboard at Roche. Have you ever started a new job and felt completely lost on the first day? We have all been there. Now imagine starting in a virtual setting, which is the case for us as homeworking has been with us since last March.

The role of this friendly colleague has therefore become even more critical as  we hired 13 new talents in 2020. They help newcomers hit the ground smoothly, adapt to the new working environment, understand our new culture, appreciate workflow processes, and learn the unspoken rules.

Another important part of our people and culture approach is to set 90 days priorities with each team member. Gone are the days of annual goals that were written in January and never adjusted until year-end performance reviews in December. Instead, we review our goals every three months to focus our work on the critical tasks for that period, thereby breaking longer-term goals into stretches that feel more achievable.

Finally, we base performance management on input from multiple sources, not just the line management, with a more holistic picture on performance. We have for instance decided to remove individual sales targets to focus on our purpose rather than purely on figures. It is still new for us,  but it says a lot about the mindset we want to instill.

From managing to enabling
We also moved away from traditional top down management towards leadership that inspires and enables our teams to achieve our shared vision of success. Our enabling team plays both a coaching and mentorship role, removing roadblocks for teams instead of directing their work.

Our mission as leaders is to empower the employees by involving everyone in important decisions and delegating responsibilities, while showing drive and ownership. For example, 18 employees worked together, using sprint methodology, and made recommendations for our organisation, which resulted in our new approach and structure.

As leadership is an important skill in any position someone might have, we have also opened coaching positions within the company to support colleagues in their development and work. Finally, we are currently training a team of transformation ambassadors coming from across all teams to further embed our cultural transformation within their own teams.

The courage to fail
The other side of the empowerment coin is that we should all be willing to experiment and be okay to learn from mistakes. At Roche, we have always strived for excellence in everything we do, so it is not always easy to make peace with failure. We are conscious that we are asking our employees to make a strong commitment of accountability here.

For example, I always wonder if, as a general manager, I should communicate more or less. I wish to be as transparent as possible and create a virtual sense of community among employees while I am afraid to fall into communication for the sake of it. I continue to learn every day on this point,  despite my communication background, as I am in a new territory with the current sanitary crisis.

To sum it up, while we are not perfect at it, we put our heart and a lot of commitment into making this cultural shift happen.

The sense of purpose
People are the most important part of any business, which is exceptionally true within Roche. We are guided by our purpose of doing now what patients need next. The patient is and will remain at the core of what we do, the reason we come to work every day.

Every position in our affiliate matters and every position can support patient outcomes – whether it be directly or indirectly. We ensure that everything we do supports better outcomes for patients and their families. That also means talking to employees who are patients themselves like me to understand their needs.

We now have colleagues who are interacting more formally and collaboratively with patient organisations. We are  liaising with different stakeholders, patients and their representatives on one side, but also healthcare professionals for the clinical care pathway to really understand the patient journey so that we can bring better efficiency and meaningful impact to their lives.. We are finally adapting processes to focus more on projects that can respond to patient needs, like a virtual reality project with patients or an upcoming patient-centred Hackathon.

This purpose is intensely lived by everyone who works at Roche, this is the biggest common denominator between all the positions I have held at Roche. Working for Roche means more than just having a job. To us, it means a daily obligation to maintain our personal integrity, think boldly and be passionately committed to improving healthcare for patients and their families.

I had no idea, when we applied, that we would be certified as the 8th best employer in Belgium in 2019. Beyond the prize, it is a recognition that comes from the employees and I am very proud to work for a company where people feel supported and respected to work for a purpose they truly believe in.

We truly believe the transformation will change the way we work internally so that we are able to focus on patients getting the care they deserve.

R.E. Dr Christine Lenaerts – M-BE-00000338 created on 27/11/2020

About the author

Brigitte Nolet

Brigitte Nolet

Roche, General Manager, Belgium

Brigitte Nolet is General Manager for Roche Belgium and Luxembourg. She has held a number of global and affiliate leadership roles within the pharmaceutical company since joining almost 14 years ago. These include Director of Government Affairs and Health Policy for Specialty Care at Roche Canada; Integrated Franchise Leader for the rare diseases franchise at Roche UK; and Head of the Global Health Policy team.

In her various leadership roles, Brigitte has worked with patient groups; established a global policy function; supported the evolution of Roche’s work with Global Health Institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organization; represented the company on numerous global and local trade association committees; led the early Roche participation on the industry NCD Access Initiative to bring oncology medicines to low and lower middle income countries; and supported multiple product launches.

Before joining Roche, she served as Vice President of Federal Government Affairs and Federal/Provincial/Territorial Issues for Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D). Prior to that, Brigitte was Director of Communications for the Honourable Jane Stewart, Minister of Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), and press secretary to the Minister of the Environment, Christine Stewart. She also served on two federal election campaigns, including supporting the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, during the 2000 federal election.

A native of Welland, Ontario, Canada, Brigitte holds a degree in English Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo; a degree in Social Development Studies from the School of Social Work; and a minor in Women’s Studies.

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